Friday, August 26, 2016

Deaconesses: This Is Not That

          It seems to me that self-described Christian Feminism is becoming increasingly shrill (I was struck by this when reading recently some feminist commentaries on the Song of Solomon).  Orthodox Feminists, however, seems to offer a kinder, gentler feminism (the works of Eva Topping being a famous exception), perhaps because of being anchored in Scripture and the Fathers.  Bluntly put, Orthodox feminists cannot easily say, “To hell with St. Paul and the Fathers” and dismiss them as a bunch of misogynistic wretches in the same way as other feminists can who feel themselves unencumbered by the weight of Holy Tradition.  An Orthodox writer has to at least give the appearance of fidelity to the Fathers and the apostolic Tradition which defines them.
            One sees this in current discussions about possible revival of the office of deaconess—or, as it is often billed, “female deacons”.  Such deaconesses did indeed exist in the early church, though not in apostolic times (Phoebe notwithstanding) and never universally.  The office came into existence when pastoral necessity dictated and passed out of existence when the necessity no longer held.  One can read all about it in Georges Martimort’s definitive work Deaconesses:  An Historical Study.
            Orthodox feminists often collapse the office of deacon and deaconess into a single office, referring sometimes to “male and female deacons”, as if the office were identical for both.  It is true that Chrysostom referred to “woman deacons”, but he also knew that the two offices were utterly different in kind and function.  The feminists pushing hard for the creation of an order of female deacons often emphasize that the rite wherein the candidate was made a deaconess was a true ordination (as opposed to a simple blessing), a true cheirotonia, not a mere cheirothesia, and that it took place at the altar.  That is true, but the anachronistic distinction between ordination and blessing hides the profound distinction between the two ordinations, and therefore the office to which the candidate was ordained.  That is, both male deacons and female deaconesses were given the ceremonial orar (which was rapidly becoming customary among subdeacons also, indicating that the bestowal of the orar did not indicate sacramental parity between deacon and deaconess), but the deaconess wore it differently than did the deacon.  The deacon was given the chalice during his ordination, so that he could help administer it during the Eucharist that followed, while the deaconess immediately returned the chalice, expressing her exclusion from Eucharistic administration.  Also, the deacon was ordained while kneeling on his knee, resting his head on the altar, while the deaconess stood and merely inclined her head.  Most significantly of all, the prayers of ordination for the two orders were entirely different.  These liturgical differences were not merely stylistic; they reveal that the two orders are different in kind.
            Pastorally the potential candidates for the two offices differed even more profoundly:  the canonical minimum age for deacons was twenty-five, and they could be married.  The canonical minimum for deaconesses was forty (thus the Quinisext Council, canon 14), and they were required to be celibate.  Their functions also could scarcely have been more different:  the deacon ministered to the congregation as a whole; the deaconess’ main task was the pastoral visitation of women who were sick and the anointing of female candidates in the baptismal waters (since those candidates were naked, and their anointing by a male deacon was judged inappropriate).  By anyone’s unbiased assessment, the two offices were entirely different.  Martimort sums it up well:  “A deaconess in the Byzantine rite was in no wise a female deacon.  She exercised a totally different ministry from that of the deacons”.
            It is just this fact that Orthodox feminists wish to gloss over.  And this refusal of history is, I suggest, no accidental lapse of scholarly judgment.  It is part of a considered strategy to advance women to ordained ministry.  This is apparent when the “revival” of the office of “the female diaconate” comes with significant changes—such as the removal of both the age and celibacy requirements.  It also comes equipped with an equally significant addition of pastoral function—deaconesses are now no longer simply ministries to women in situations where men could not minister, but partake of the liturgical universalism of male deacons.  In some cases, theological education would be required, or at least recommended.
            When these subtractions and additions are weighed, it is apparent that what is being proffered to the Church is not a revival of the order of deaconess, but the creation of an entirely new ordained order of female ministry, masquerading as a deaconess.  One notices too another significant deviation from the mind and methodology of the early church:  the early church created (and let lapse) orders and ministries according to pastoral need; we now are trying to create an order based primarily or even solely upon the desire of candidates to be ordained.  This is and is intended as the “edge of the wedge” to push women into the diaconate proper and thence into the priesthood (the “edge of the wedge” argument is not invalid simply because it is so often maligned).  It would be well for the feminists to admit this up front, and not hide behind the usual rhetoric. 
At the very least one may hope for an end of some disingenuous tentativeness.  One thinks here of the final words with which the dear late Ms. Behr-Sigel ended her keynote address at the Agapia Women’s Conference in Romania in 1976:  “[These] are questions which we Orthodox women gathered here at Agapia wish to put before the Church, praying that the Spirit will guide her, and will guide us in the right way.  In the words of the psalmist we say, ‘Show us the way we must take!’”  One might imagine from these words that for her and her feminist colleagues the matter was as yet undecided and the question an open one.  Her subsequent writings leave little doubt that she and others with her felt they knew already which way the Spirit was trying to guide the Church (compare her suggestion that the Orthodox might begin ordaining women priests in some places while maintaining a “disciplinary pluralism” about the practice).  The feminists do not regard the question as genuinely open, any more than I do.  That is quite fair.  But let us be honest about where we stand and what we believe, otherwise our discussions will reflect a degree of unreality and will not bear fruit.  I am mindful of the words of JFK:  “We cannot negotiate with people who say, ‘What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours in negotiable’”. 
Whatever discussions occur regarding the possible revival or creation of an order of female deacon, let us all at least be open and truthful.  Let us admit that this is not that:  the proffered model of deaconess bears little resemblance to the ancient order.  Let us therefore debate possibility of the new model on its own modern merits.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Ecumenical Reality

          Sometimes I feel a little sorry for the Pope—he seems to have the unenviable task of changing Roman Catholic dogma and practice while all the time denying that he is doing any such thing. Take for example his apparent recent desire to readmit divorced and remarried Catholics into Eucharistic Communion. Traditional Catholic theology and papal pronouncements said that such readmission was not possible for the remarried Catholic unless he or she either returned to the original partner or lived in celibacy. The aura of authority surrounding these pronouncements, whether or not proclaimed with ex cathedra infallibility, allowed for very little if any wriggle room. As one dear friend said (a Ukrainian Catholic priest, no less), “Being the Pope means never having to say you’re sorry.” In theory anyway, whatever Rome says is right, is right. Period. End of discussion. Roma locuta; causa finita est.
          The problem becomes larger because Roma has spoken and dogmatized about so many things over the centuries, some of which it would appear it now regrets. Take, for example, the heretical status of Protestants. In reaction to the Reformation, Rome said pretty authoritatively and clearly that all Protestants were going to hell, and that it was a mortal sin for a Catholic to so much as enter a Protestant Church. One can see why from their point of view: as far as they were concerned, the Roman Catholic Church had never erred and was in no such need of correction as the reformers alleged. Indeed, the Roman Church was a societas perfecta which, however defined, did not encourage profound self- criticism. If the Roman Church had nothing that radically wrong with it, then surely the Protestant Reformers were heretics pure and simple, not really very different from such older heretics such as Arius and Nestorius. That being so, anathema to them!
          Then came the latter half of the twentieth century, and by the time of the Second Vatican Council, a desire arose to deal with the Protestants rather more gently. The fascinating sea-change which transformed anathematized heretics into “separated brethren” has been well told by Fr. Peter Heers, in his volume The Ecclesiological Renovation of Vatican II. In it we learn that although a few old hard-liners voted against the new sea-change (having been taught all their lives that Protestants were hell-bound heretics), the ecumenical reformers succeeded in reforming the status of the Reformers. An aggiornamento indeed!
          What does all this have to do with how Orthodoxy views those outside its canonical boundaries? Do we Orthodox find ourselves facing the same dilemma as our Roman Catholic friends regarding the status of those outside their communion, changing our past dogmas to conform to present perceptions? I don’t think we do.
          When we return to the patristic approach to heresy, we find the Fathers dealing with people who knew Orthodoxy, understood it to a great degree, and who still rejected it vehemently enough to go into schism. St. Basil famously distinguished between the varying degrees of separation within these groups. Some were sufficiently close to Orthodoxy as to be reconciled through a simple recantation of their errors; others were further enough from Orthodoxy that their reconciliation required them to be chrismated; and some were so estranged from Orthodoxy that they had to be received by baptism. One could argue about whether or not these different ways of receiving heretics into the Church represented differing appreciations of their baptisms. Here I only point out two things: 1. all of those outside the Church were considered as being outside salvation, and 2. all of those heretics were consciously and deliberating rejecting the Orthodox Faith.
          This last point is important, for it reveals the significance of the subjective state of the heretic. That is, heresy and the schism to which it led were considered damnable not simply because the heretic was in factual error about some bit of theology, but because he had sinned against love. Mere well- intentioned error alone does not suffice to make one a heretic—one must also hold to one’s erroneous view in defiance of the community, proudly scorning the received Tradition. (We note that, for all his odd personal views, men like Origen died in the communion of the Church; I would suggest therefore that although “Origenism” is heretical; Origen himself was not actually a heretic.) Heresy is primarily a
matter of the heart; it is more like rejecting one’s family than like adding up a tall column of figures and getting the sum wrong.
          The Fathers’ denunciation of the heretics of their day were denunciations of men who were rejecting the Orthodox family, and if we would be faithful to their patristic glossary, we would also define as heretics today men to were moved to reject Orthodoxy in the same way as did the heretics of old. But in fact we find the modern Protestants do not fit this ancient pattern quite so well.
           Here we differ from our Roman Catholic friends. They were committed to the view that there was nothing much doctrinally wrong with the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, and so had little choice but to reject their Protestant critics as heretics. We Orthodox can see plenty wrong with the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, and in fact would agree with much (though of course not all) of the Protestant critique. Admittedly the Protestants in varying degrees threw out some of the doctrinal baby with the bathwater. But that does not change the fact that in much of their quarrel with Rome they were motivated by genuine Christian impulse—i.e. they were concerned to a large degree to serve Christ. If the Roman Catholic Church was by the sixteenth century in such a mess that we Orthodox could not bring ourselves to be in communion with them, can we really blame the Protestants for going and doing likewise?
          This Protestant concern to serve Christ was not, I submit, enough to preserve their ecclesiastical status. If Rome was then in schism, then the Protestants were doubly so. But it was enough, I suggest, to save their souls, and to rescue them from the unambiguous condemnation such as the Fathers justly heaped on the heretics of their day. The ancient heretics were primarily rejecting the truth of Orthodoxy; the Protestants were primarily rejecting the errors of Rome, and it is an error in historical methodology to equate the two. When at length they did come to discover Orthodoxy, they had already been too greatly affected by their western quarrel, and their conversations with us (one thinks of the Lutheran conversations with Jeremias II) were less times of true discovery than foraging parties for new ammo to use against Rome. Even now most Protestant groups cannot really hear our words; their ears are too full of their cannonade against Rome.
          All of this concerns the historical Reformation with its classic creeds, and the contemporary picture is complicated by the immense theological liberalization of most of the Protestant churches. Indeed, Luther today would certainly disown much of what passes for Lutheranism. But not all of the Protestants have followed in the broad way of liberalism. In my own experience, both past and present, I know of Protestant Christians who sincerely love Christ and strive to serve Him. Some have received clearly supernatural help, and their lives bear the undeniable stamp of the Holy Spirit. Their churches’ doctrine and the spiritual resources available to them there are still deficient, of course. They still remain in schism, and that comes at a price. But they have clearly experienced God’s grace. One may say, if one wishes, that such grace comes short of the new birth, but if a person can experience forgiveness, peace, and joy in Christ apart from the new birth, one might be forgiven for asking what exactly the new birth accomplished anyway. Surely it is better to recognize in these souls the new birth and presence of saving grace? I suggest that this grace comes to them apart from the Church, and apart from the Church’s sacraments, precisely because they are not like the heretics of old, but seek Christ according to the limited light given to them.
          I say this not just because to deny it I would have to deny the evidence of my own senses and experience of others. I also say it because to deny it I would have to deny what I have experienced in my own life—the only life about which I can speak authoritatively. Before I became Orthodox, I was a Christian in the world of charismatic Protestant Evangelicalism, and then in the world of conservative Anglicanism. I know perfectly well how deficient my theology was and how lacking my experience of the Faith’s fullness. I also know perfectly well that I had truly come to experience Christ’s saving grace nonetheless, and that this experience of grace formed a constant which continued in my life after I came to Orthodoxy, binding my pre-Orthodox life and my Orthodox life together into a single whole.
          It is true that receiving such grace apart from the Church’s sacraments would be unusual and not according to the usual pattern of covenantal initiation—though not out of character for the Lord who wishes all to be saved and who never rejects those who come to Him in faith. And such extra-sacramental bestowal of grace even has some Scriptural precedent: we think of Apollos who was clearly a Christian even before being baptized by the Church (Acts 18:25)—indeed, he is even described there as ζεων τω πνευματι/ zeon to pneumati, a phrase the RSV renders in Romans 12:11 as “aglow with the Spirit”. We think too of how the Holy Spirit fell upon a roomful of unbaptized Gentiles when they heard the Gospel from Peter with open hearts (Acts 10:44-48). These examples of course do not set a pattern for possible initiation. Even in their day, they were unusual. But they did reveal how God’s grace could precede sacramental administration, and how God is not bound to follow the normal ecclesiastical pattern. Apparently the Spirit really does blow where He wills (John 3:8).
          I suggest that we are currently experiencing the same kind of reality today, wherein certain people, canonically outside the boundaries of the Orthodox Church, genuinely experience God’s saving grace. But before I suggest what this means, let me also first suggest what it does not mean. It does not mean that sacraments do not matter. It does not mean that doctrine does not matter. It does not mean that all churches are the same so that it does not matter which church one belongs to. It does not mean that sacraments are valid outside of the Orthodox Church. It does not mean that all Protestants are the same. It does not mean that the churches to which these saved individuals belong are part of an ecumenical super-church or “invisible church”. It does not mean that we Orthodox should not press and try to persuade all Christians to become Orthodox. It does not mean that the Fathers are not reliable guides, or that the Fathers were wrong. In our over-heated polemical climate, over-heated polemicists are keen to draw any number of these conclusions, but I would caution against it. None of these conclusions follow from my suggestion that men can be saved apart from inclusion in the Orthodox Church. We may debate what theological significance finding grace outside of Orthodoxy has for (say) our understanding of their sacraments or their ecclesial status, but the fact that grace can be found there should be beyond dispute.
          So, if saying that saving grace is found outside the Orthodox Church does not mean any of these things, what does it mean? In a word, it means that reality is messier and God’s love is bigger than any tidy system can easily handle. It means that as we walk through the world, we must give due weight to what our eyes can see and what our hearts can discern. To deny that some devout souls who love Christ and serve Him with all their strength and whose lives have born spiritual fruit for Him are Christians seems to involve a degree of blindness shared by the Pharisees of old. It involves also a curious insensitivity of spiritual palate, somehow equating Billy Graham and Mother Teresa with Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy. For there is clearly a deep and substantive difference between (say) conservative Reformed Anglicans like J.I. Packer and the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. If the former are condemned as heretics, we must then find a new and stronger word for the latter, for by anyone’s sane figuring, the two groups are too dissimilar to be share the same label.
           The present ecumenical reality is therefore a new thing in the earth, and the patristic categories are insufficient to understand them, since the Fathers dealt with heretics of another kind. Things are changing quickly, as darkness and light increasingly separate from each other and we see fewer and fewer shades of grey. We may expect the liberal Protestant churches to become more and more estranged from us, as they reject not only our doctrine but our moral praxis as well. They will be the true heretics, like the heretics of old, and the patristic categories will apply to them in full. But there remain in Protestantism a few souls which have not bent to the knee to Baal. For them there is hope. We owe it to them to continue talking, recognize the grace within them, and to help bring them home. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Where Do You Worship?

          Our Divine Liturgy here at my parish of St. Herman’s does not actually occur in Langley, B.C.—nor, if it comes to that, does the Eucharist you attend occur in the city in which you live.  Rather, both of our Liturgies take place in the same place—in heaven.  Our bodies may be standing on earth on some terrestrial piece of prime real estate on Sunday morning, but the worship there still occurs not on earth but with Christ in heaven.  When the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews said, “We have an altar” (Hebrews 13:10), he was not talking about the table at which the first-century celebrant stood.  He was talking about the heavenly and ideal altar before the throne in heaven.  One can read all about it in the previous chapters of his letter:  Christ the great high-priest entered into the Holy Place in heaven through His own blood, appearing there in the presence of God on our behalf (Hebrews 9:11-12, 24).  It is before that throne that we appear on Sunday when we draw near to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16). 
            St. Paul said the same thing.  God blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, and that is where we go to receive those blessings, for God raised us up with Christ made us sit with Him (literally, “co-sit with Him”, Greek sugkathizo) in the heavenlies (Ephesians 1:1, 2:6).  It is also what your priest says every Sunday.  Before he begins the anaphora, he bids you “Lift up your hearts!”, and you respond, “We lift them up unto the Lord!”  When he says, “Lift up your hearts”, he is not simply telling you to cheer up; he is telling you to ascend to heaven where the Lord is.  As Father Alexander Schmemann reminded us in his book For the Life of the World, Orthodox worship takes place in the key of ascent, not descent.  We do not ask for God’s grace to descend and come down upon us so much as we ask for that grace to help us ascend and to lift us up to Him.
            Given that our worship takes place in heaven it is not surprising to see so many icons on the walls around us, nor that we ask for the prayers of the Mother of God and the saints and angels.  Since we have ascended to heaven, we find ourselves invisibly surrounded by the saints who also stand with us in heaven’s court.  With what else should be adorn our church walls and icon corners but their images?  These images remind us of where we are.  And how could we not ask for their prayers and intercessions, since we stand alongside them?
            Realizing that our worship finds its true locus in heaven—both our corporate Eucharists on Sunday and our private prayers during the weekdays—should be a tremendous encouragement to us.  We might imagine that our little mission choir or aged cantor, perhaps singing a bit off-key, are on their own.  We might imagine that when we say our personal prayers while standing tired and distracted before our home icon corner, we also stand alone.  When the only voices we hear are ours and the few standing around us, we can sometimes feel like lonely soldiers, cut off from the rest of our battalion, struggling on our own, and might suppose that we are praying in isolation.  It is not so.  All of our prayers as Christians are offered in heaven, where we stand amidst a great and numberless throng.  We never pray alone, but as a part of that vast Body of Christ.  From that heavenly throng comes a great swelling chorus of praise, a thundering symphony, and we are called to add our few little notes to it.  We might think that if we skip our prayers our little contribution will not be missed.  This also is not so.  The One who hears the sparrow when it falls also hears whatever comes from our lips as well.  He listens to that chorus to hear our voice as well.  Let us not tire and faint and skip our prayers, thinking that we pray on our own and that no one will know or care if we stop praying.  We are part of a mighty choir in heaven, and our notes are needed.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Can We Know for Sure Who is Saved?

          There are a number of people who are fairly certain that they can know—not guess, but know— who is lost and who is saved. Others on the opposite end of the omniscience scale assert emphatically that no one can know for sure if any particular person is lost or saved. The first group claim that total certitude is possible about such things; the latter group opts for total agnosticism. I quote representatives from both camps.
          A few years ago in our parish a convert from the Mennonite faith was discussing Orthodoxy with the father of another young man who also had recently converted. The father was concerned for his convert son’s soul, for in leaving Protestant Evangelicalism, the father believed that his son had left Christ. The former Mennonite knew how to speak “Evangelicalese” and strove in that language to convince the concerned father that his son still believed in Jesus and was not apostate. At the end of two hour’s discussion, he said to the father, “Let me ask you this: do you believe that I’m saved?” The response was immediate and emphatic: “I know you’re not.”
          The other example is more recent, and comes from the blogosphere. In the comments section of a piece written in First Things, one commenter got a little off topic and mentioned Osama bin Laden. He wrote, “The one person I know who sold his soul to the devil is now burning in hell! Osama bin Laden is definitely not being taken care of by 72 virgins but rather, being toasted like marshmallow and hotdog by the devil and his cohorts. He's now wailing and gnashing his teeth for being fooled by the same being he sold his soul into.” This elicited the reply from another commentator, “By what means do you know this, good sir? For this is more than I know.” The latter commentator was clearly reluctant to pronounce definitively on the state of anyone’s soul, not just bin Laden’s.
          What are we to make of all this? Is certainty possible in any particular case? In a few cases, I suggest that such certainty is possible—namely, in the cases of Judas Iscariot, the devil, and his angels, the demons. I say this on the basis of Christ’s words. Regarding Judas He said that he was “a devil” (John 6:70), and a “son of perdition”—i.e. someone lost (John 17:12), and that it would have been better for him if he had never been born (Mark 14:21). By any plain and unbiased reading of these texts, Christ is saying that Judas will not be saved. It is the same with the damnation of the devil—the Scripture plainly states that he will be “cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). Similarly with the demons: Christ spoke of Gehenna as having been “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41), which would be odd if the devil and his angels will somehow avoid it. Note that in these cases, one is not left guessing because one possesses a clear and authoritative word from Christ on the very subject. Speaking with certitude in these cases does not indicate hubris on the part of the speaker, but humility: Christ has given His verdict, and a humble heart will accept it, even if it trembles all the while.
          But, it seems to me, all other cases must partake of less certitude. The New Testament tells us who will be lost in the sense of “what kind of person” will be lost, but that is all. It does not attach an authoritative list. Thus we read that a person will be lost if he is one of those who is “selfishly ambitious and who [does] not obey the truth, but [obeys] unrighteousness” (Romans 2:8), if he who “practice such things” as “the works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21), if he hates his brother (1 John 3:15), if he “[does] not obey the Son” (John 3:36). That is, we are offered the profile of the damned, but not God’s verdict on any particular individual about whether or not they fit that profile. And surely it is easy to see why? God wants us to look mostly at our own sins, not the sins of others; the Judge of all the earth does not require our help in this regard.
          This means that for some people we may have almost no knowledge of their interior state (and thus of their eternal fate), and for others we may have greater or lesser degrees of knowledge. For example, I do not know for absolute certainty that Mother Teresa (that happy and oft-used example) will be saved. But if I had to place a bet, I think it is highly probable—so highly probable, in fact, that the psychological degree of probability is indistinguishable from certainty.
          Or take the other unhappy example of Osama bin Laden. I do not know for absolute certainty that he was damned, and that he is now “being toasted like marshmallow and hotdog by the devil and his cohorts”. It is possible that before he was unexpectedly shot and killed he had re-thought his whole life and repented. The same with Hitler (and other oft-cited example of someone lost). I do not know that he is damned. Possibly just as he pulled the trigger to blow his brains out he too repented. But the element of doubt in my mind about his damnation is not very large. I do know that the plea of “invincible ignorance” as a defense will only go so far, and probably not far enough to cover the cases of bin Laden and Hitler. I would still say that the fact their damnation is “more than I know”. But most of the things on which we base our life are degrees of probability, not absolute certainties.
          For example, I do not know that the lottery ticket in my hand (that is, my metaphorical hand; I never buy lottery tickets) is not the winning ticket, and that I will not soon be five million dollars richer. But the astronomical odds against it serve to reduce the high probability to a virtual psychological certainty. (That, of course, is what makes the actual winners so news-worthy.) I do not know for absolute certainty that I will not be struck by lightning today after I get out of bed (about 330 people are struck by lightning each year in the U.S.), but the high degree of probability is in my favour and so I will live the day as if I knew it would not happen and not keep looking nervously skyward if it begins to rain. The same thing attends other basic beliefs that govern our lives—pretty everything is a matter of probability, not of mathematical certainty, but to live sanely we often must collapse the two into one.
I suggest therefore that although we cannot know for absolute certainty that certain individuals are damned, about a spectacular few of them we can hazard a pretty good guess. A better question though than “Will this person be saved?” is “What does God want me to do today?” Regarding that question, we can have complete certainty.